Muslim Mothering: Global Histories, Theories, and Practices edited by Margaret Aziza Pappano and Dana M.Owen is a compilation of essays focusing on what it means to be a Muslim mother. In the introduction, Pappano and Owen reveal that this “volume seeks to show how Muslim mothers experience mothering in their own words” (pg. 3). The stereotype that exists is the image of a Muslim mother as “shadowy, veiled figures in the background repressed by a violent domineering patriarchal religious culture and…silent appendages of their husbands” (pg. 3). Immediately after reading this I thought of David Cameron’s ‘traditionally submissive’ gaffe and more recently Donald Trump’s attack on Khizr Khan’s wife. This book seeks to challenge this stereotype by giving women a platform to speak out against the Islamophobic, sexist and racial abuses they have felt in their lives as Muslim women and mothers.
Throughout the introduction, readers are shown how the Quran elevated the status of women and mothers. The Prophet’s wives were not confined to their ability to procreate. In fact, only Khadijah bore children. But that didn’t lessen the importance of his other wives. Early sources indicate that motherhood and an active public life were not contradictory and not having children was not a cause for shame. The Quran “emphasizes that God creates in wombs what and however he pleases [Quran 3:6], which leaves humans with little to no control over reproduction” (pg 5). This is especially true of Maryam. The Quran refers to Prophet Isa as the “son of Maryam” “emphasizing his lack of paternity” (pg 6) and elevating Maryam’s status at the same time. Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite wife, didn’t bear children but reported the most hadith of all the companions of the Prophet (pg. 5).
The introduction was an educational read for me because it showed how so many of the patriarchal, cultures rules we fall under today don’t necessarily come from Islam. It is a theme that continues throughout the volume. As a Muslim woman, it helped me to feel validated. When I was a young mother, living in Damascus I remember feeling trapped by my role as a mother. I would see all of these young, single girls come to Damascus from all over the world to learn Arabic and Quran and I would envy them. I resented their freedom to go out and study without the obligations of marriage and motherhood. My conservative, Palestinian parents would never have let me travel abroad before marriage. Religious education is so important for this very reason.
In her essay, “Sister Mothers,” Maria F. Curtis explores the lives of Turkish women living in Texas who form sisterhoods to help them maintain their cultural connection to Turkey while living abroad. The women become big sisters to each other to teach and join in Islamic religious circles. Oftentimes female family members join them in America to care for children while they work or attend school. The older “sisters” or “Abalar” take it upon themselves to take the younger women under their wings and teach them that Islam is compatible with their modern, normal lives.
Part I of this volume, “Muslim Mothering Amid War and Violence” piqued my interest and it did not disappoint. These essays focused on the stories of actual mothers living in war torn Gaza, militarized Kashmir and politicized Iran. In the first essay, “Empowered Muslim Mothering: Navigating War, Border Crossing and Activism in El-Haddad’s Gaza Mom” by Nadine Sinno, we are regaled with stories of Laila El-Haddad, “Palestinian mother, journalist and activist” (pg 23). We watch as El-Haddad breastfeeds at border crossings and celebrates potty training her son because she won’t need to worry about access to diapers. Her blog entries are humorous and light-hearted even set against a heartbreaking backdrop of occupation. Reading this essay prompted me to buy her book, Gaza Mom. I found this essay to be relevant to my own experience of mothering in the Middle East, in particular in relation to what Sinno calls the “maternal thinking or concentrated effort that women put into mothering” that goes into raising children when your resources are not within reach.
The following two chapters of this part were harder for me to read. The essay “’God as My Witness’: Mothering and Militarization in Kashmir” by Nouf Bazaz relies heavily on interviews with Kashmiri mothers. This essay focuses on the hardships of male family members’ suspicious disappearances. These mothers and wives are subject to ridicule and abuse by the very army the women suspect responsible for these disappearances. The women speak of their reliance on God to get through their trauma. In a community where they “suffer the stigma of being the mother of the ‘disappeared” (pg 37), the women turn to God. As you read the essay, the burden of grief and stories of their abuses at the hands of the military can feel like tragedy-porn, so I appreciated the author’s noting the difficulty in relaying stories. Importantly, Bazaz admits to something getting lost in the literal “translations.”
The essay “Mourning Mothers in Iran Narratives and Counter-Narratives of Grievability and Martyrdom” by Rachel Fox shows how the loss of children becomes politicized. These mothers mobilize private mourning into public activism. Again, we are given an alternative to the stereotype often fed to us by the media. Here, we are seeing Muslim mothers being active and on the frontlines of political activism. Mostly because they, like the women featured in the Kashmiri essay, are the main targets of injustice.
These essays, along with others exploring domestic abuse , show how women going through some toughest situations never lose their faith in God. This too, will become a running theme. In all the interviews with the women, whether they have overcome abuse, dealing with single motherhood or isolation, none of them blame Islam itself for their suffering. All of the women do not seek to demonize their faith in the way we have seen become the norm across the media. Muslim women are often represented as a monolithic group, proving Islam’s oppressive patriarchal structures, but when reading the stories of these women we find that this is a simplistic understanding of oppression. Rather, there are many different facets to their experiences as well as to the challenges they face, whether as mothers or as Muslims. Here is where the compilation really shines. The narratives of these women show the reality on the ground that gets often gets lost in the collective stereotype.
For many immigrant Muslim mothers this makes them isolate themselves. They are faced with the burden of learning a new language which limits their ability to express or defend themselves. They are also adjusting to a new culture while at the same time trying to socialize their children. With the ‘War on Terror’ and rise of ISIS, Muslim mothers may find themselves “responsible for the ‘terrorist’ acts” (pg. 171) of their children. More often than not, every decision a Muslim mother makes will be attributed to her belief in Islam. When Huliya, a woman living in Germany, decides to not allow her daughter “to stay overnight with her friends,[this] might be explained within the context as ‘typical’ Islamic means to ‘protect her chastity’ (pg 193) instead of her desire to protect her from repeated sexual abuse which is appreciated by her daughter.
Muslim women are tasked with being all around Superwomen. Culturally they have been given the roles of caretakers, pleasure givers, educators of both secular and religious instruction and sometimes breadwinners. Muslim Mothering works to illuminate the difference between the Islam we see in much of the mainstream media and the reality that exists in the Quran and academic sources. When people don’t have actual contact with real Muslims, it is easy to fall for these stereotypes and misconceptions. That’s why I loved the chapters that focused on the women’s narratives. They drew us in with their own experiences. Books like this can help change perceptions both for Muslims and non-Muslims by tackling issues that are considered taboo. Post the presidential election in the United States, this book is timely in its discussions of Muslim women and mothers at the frontlines of discrimination. By the end of it, I definitely felt empowered by the stories of other women and comforted in the Islam that I believe in.